Good ideas: National recycling standards

The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.

Recycling is “green” and it is mostly accepted as important. Most municipalities in Ontario seem to have recycling programs, but each municipality designs and implements its own program and standards. The situation appears similar across the country.

It seems to me about time that a set of national recycling standards was devised to make recycling more uniform, more effective, easier to widely implement, and more visible on a national scale. All my searches for such a proposal led to just one blog post suggesting that the U.S. make uniform its assortment of local recycling policies.

The problem with recycling in places like Waterloo Region is not that it’s not done, but that it’s done in so many different ways. Single-family dwellings and small apartment buildings set out blue bins for pick up by the region. The University of Waterloo and some larger apartment buildings set out the region’s blue wheeled containers, which cover most of what goes into the blue bins — if you can find them all in one place. Offices at UW’s campus might have tiny blue bins that presumably get sorted out somewhere by someone; some places have additional bins specifically for white paper. Workplaces and other apartment buildings may have recycling provided through a private company with different standards for what gets recycled and how it gets sorted — if they recycle at all. Restaurants usually don’t provide any means for recycling, or may provide some place to presumably recycle glass and plastic bottles; but what about paper packaging or other kinds of plastic?

Batteries get collected at sporadic locations, if they get collected at all. Much of the recycling facilities remains esoteric — such as the fact that styrofoam is indeed accepted, if you drive to the landfill. There are no areas accessible without a car where hazardous materials may be disposed of, and no publicized ways to have them picked up.

Both Kitchener and Waterloo have been installing Molok containers on streets in pairs: one for garbage and one for recycling. But what kind of recycling? And why isn’t the signage consistent with the Region’s recycling program? How can I have confidence that it won’t just end up being tossed?

That’s just within Waterloo Region, but what if I go over to Guelph? They’ve got a completely different recycling policy. Same thing for Toronto, or Hamilton, or London. Each municipality has its own recycling policy with its own idiosyncrasies about what is kosher and what isn’t. Each municipality expends individual effort to develop a coherent recycling program and informational material so that its residents can recycle. And in each, there are ambiguous items that may be recyclable but that a resident can’t easily determine as such — and some of these unnecessarily clutter the recycling stream, or unnecessarily end up in the landfill; the only authoritative source for whether something is recyclable is the municipal recycling website, whatever its quality. Prior experience is of little use.

It should be apparent why I am suggesting a national recycling policy for Canada. Recycling is complicated, but it does not have to be so. A comprehensive but simple system that is universal would go a long way toward making recycling culturally understandable. In the areas with good recycling programs it would get rid of the discrepancies between home and work and street. In the areas with bad ones, it would substantially increase the diversion rate. With a national recycling policy there would be a strong marketing and branding capability for it that would likely go far beyond the means of any individual municipality.

A national standard would make recycling more corporate-friendly, in that companies could have their pick of recycling containers, providers perhaps, and even “solutions” that all provide the same national recycling branding and standards. This applies to municipalities as well.

Under such a system the government could force all non-obvious packaging and materials to unambiguously be labelled in concert with the national recycling standards. Anything that is recyclable would have a clear path to a recycle bin anywhere in the country.  Moreover, the program could be partially funded using a tax on non-recyclable material and packaging.

The one challenge that comes to my mind is how to foster innovation in recycling practices in such a system. Municipalities should be allowed — encouraged, in fact — to provide additional facilities beyond the requirements. But once they substitute their independent recycling department for something analogous to a franchise, that may prove difficult to motivate. The innovation would probably need to come from non-profits and the national recycling entity itself.

The curse of flexibility in transit

You hear it all the time. Buses are more flexible than rail. From point A, bus routes can take you to your favorite points X, Y, and Z, each in a single ride. They can detour around an accident. The routes can be altered to accord with population shifts.

But the curse of flexibility is that it gets used. It sounds like a truism, but bear with me. I believe the theme applies rather broadly, but I want to talk about the curse of transit flexibility.

The other day I was at the University of Waterloo after 7 pm and had to unexpectedly make it to downtown Kitchener. The 8 bus could get me there, but it was running at a 30 minute frequency. By that hour the 7 was running at a 30 minute frequency, on just one of its routings. The iXpress had the furthest stop and at that hour was also at a 30 minute frequency. I had the luxury of a choice between three different buses with separate schedules and bus stops — and infrequent service. Had the iXpress been running at a 10 minute frequency, I would’ve gone to that stop and not have wasted my time and energy trying to plan such a simple trip.

In contrast, transit infrastructure like light rail forces a choice of a corridor — and that’s where the service is concentrated, without being diffused among many routes.

Buses can detour. For some time this week road construction closed the north UW campus entrance, and separate construction closed the east side of Ring Road. That meant hell for transit users, who first had the realization that their bus wasn’t where they expect it, then had to figure out where it actually was, and of course the schedules were screwed up anyway. The iXpress did a detour of over 3 km between the UW stop and the R&T Park stop, taking a long time and getting stuck in the construction-related traffic along the way. Getting out and walking that same distance would have been faster.

Light rail can’t detour, so it forces construction to be done quickly, with minimal impact — and at night whenever possible.

Buses can have their routes moved in accordance with change in transportation demand, and the flip side is the absence of commitment that transit along a corridor will be provided in the years to come. So the location of transit routes cannot be used to directly inform decisions about where to live, or where to build. If you build fixed transit infrastructure (e.g. light rail), however, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a tangible commitment to providing transit along that corridor, which is used to determine where to live and where to build, thereby itself shaping the transportation demand.

Precisely due to their flexibility, buses can do little to shape or direct urban form and land use. So they have no choice but to react. They can demand little of any forces that hinder their operations. And a bus system’s flexibility in providing service from any point to any other point makes it difficult to consolidate service into select, high quality routes that are easy to understand and use.

TriTAG and light rail

I haven’t forgotten about this blog. However, as a member of TriTAG, the Tri-Cities Transport Action Group, I have spent quite a lot of time recently on the content for our new website — which I am happy to report is now live at tritag.ca. (Tri-cities is for Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge, and for being a catchy name.)

Today’s issue of The Record also carries my op-ed in support of light rail for the Region of Waterloo. It mainly focuses on light rail as the natural evolution of the rapidly growing iXpress bus route.

While TriTAG strongly supports the light rail project, it is by no means a single-issue group and is also focusing on issues relating to transit and urban infrastructure in the Region, including ones addressed in this blog.

Good ideas: Permeable pavement

Most pavement is impermeable to water. As a result, paved surfaces need to be designed to funnel water into drains, and drainage and sewer systems need to be designed for the high capacity necessary to deal with runoff from the huge number of paved surfaces in our cities. Instead of replenishing groundwater, precipitation is redirected to rivers and lakes. Runoff from roads carries with it automotive pollution, which is then concentrated in downstream bodies of water.

Various technologies are coming into use, however, for pavement that is permeable to water. Porous asphalt and pervious concrete are fairly new techniques, so they are still being developed and improved. The main difficulties include weight resistance and longevity, as well as cold climate installation. And, of course, it’s more expensive to install (particularly for cold climates), though it may be cheaper than conventional pavement if considered together with the costs of storm-water management.

What’s the point? First off, urban runoff is reduced, and with it pollution and the need for large and extensive drainage systems. But there are other benefits that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. On impervious road surfaces drainage can work poorly, leading to the sometimes hazardous accumulation of water, which could be averted by permeable pavement. Likewise, it can prevent the ubiquitous puddles that form in depressions on sidewalks and paths. This pavement can also eliminate the need for drainage grates that are often encountered on bike lanes, which can be a hazard and nuisance to cyclists. If pervious concrete is used, it has the added advantage of reflecting more sunlight than asphalt, which can have a significant mitigating effect on climate change.

The technology is promising and I am surprised that the Region of Waterloo hasn’t yet taken up the idea. The Region should investigate permeable pavement and at least pilot the technology. They could do worse than paving the path through Waterloo Park as a test.

Bold lines: Guaranteed high-frequency bus routes

I’ve written before about the complexities and uncertainties of bus systems. Here I outline one simple way to make transit networks more accessible to riders and would-be riders: guaranteed high-frequency routes. Creating such routes and marking them in bold on maps makes clear what portion of a system is accessible without a schedule, making possible spontaneous trips and more natural transit use.

Lines should be marked in bold on route maps if they run (for example):

  • At least every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday from 6 am to 10 pm and Sundays and holidays from 8 am to 8 pm;
  • At least every 30 minutes the rest of the time.

Express routes should be clearly delineated from other routes on the same corridor. Branching is okay, but only sections of a line meeting the frequency criteria may be marked in bold. Streetcar lines, if any, should meet bold line standards, perhaps being drawn in a separate color for clarity. Maps should list the service frequency for bold lines, and bus stops along bold routes should clearly indicate their status as such.

Currently there is not a single Grand River Transit route that qualifies. Route 7 mainline is pretty close to bold between King & Ottawa and King & University, but lacks night service. On University between Westmount and Weber, routes 8 and 12 could together be close as well.

Bus routes necessitating a schedule are only accessible to committed bus riders, and are unfriendly to casual users. A guaranteed high frequency on selected routes makes those lines easier and more pleasant to use for the choice rider as well as for the regular transit user. Minimum nightly service assures users that they will not be stranded, which encourages use during all hours.

Transit systems without bold lines should try implementing a small network of them. And systems that already have lines that qualify should be making a big deal of it. Simplified pocket-size maps ought to be freely available to show the transit-novice and the transit-averse which routes are easy to use.

It is difficult for low frequency service to spur enough ridership to “justify” high frequency service; it’s an uphill battle of incremental service increases in tandem with small ridership increases (and sporadic service cuts for good measure). Bold lines allow a transit network to pull itself up by the bootstraps through strategic allocation of resources into a network structure that is qualitatively different and more accessible to riders.

Sourdough starter and no-knead multi-grain bread

The bread

This blog was supposed to be about food too, so in this post I’ll describe how to maintain a sourdough starter and make a simple no-work bread.

A sourdough starter is a culture of lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts that is used to leaven bread. (And waffles, pancakes, etc.) It is more potent than pure yeast, but also adds different flavors to bread. To use it, the first step is to find someone who is willing to share a bit of sourdough starter with you; if that fails, other sources exist. Read More…

The opportunity of full buses

“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” -Yogi Berra

It’s rush hour and you’re going home. You’re driving along a freely moving road with no jams. In front of you a bus stops to pick up a few passengers. It looks like it will take a while, so you pass it, and look in while doing so. The bus is jam-packed.

Will this make you more or less likely to consider taking the bus? Unless you are a pickpocket, I imagine the answer is the latter.

It seems to me that transit advocates like seeing full buses, and I admit I’ve been one of that number. Full buses mean that people are riding transit, which is good! But full buses are actually a bad thing for a number of reasons, and they may be detrimental to the growth of transit mode share in areas where transit does not predominate.

It is plain uncomfortable to be on a crowded bus. Difficult to get on, difficult to get off. When the bus lurches or grinds to a halt, standees — often unable to get a good grip — get thrown all over the place.

A full bus takes longer to get everywhere. As a result of having so many people, it is likely to make more stops. Plus, it takes much longer each time someone needs to get on or off. It’s even worse in the case of buses running every 15 minutes or more frequently, as the later a bus arrives, the more people will be waiting for it. The next bus is comparatively less burdened, and is able to catch up. This bus bunching decreases effective frequency.

There is always some variation in how many people ride the bus. If the bus is full as a matter of course, there is no room for it to handle an upward deviation in ridership. Every time someone gets left behind at a bus stop, that has a real chance of adding another driver back to the roads. And it certainly doesn’t invite new riders.

It is an order of magnitude better to run half-full buses at twice the frequency than running crush loaded buses. The difference in quality of service between the two choices is huge: higher frequency is itself attractive to riders, as is having more space available and having shorter dwell times. This higher frequency would of course be particularly effective if it crossed the schedule-free threshold. I suspect that in many cases of full buses in K-W, running at twice the frequency might actually lead to running 2/3 full buses (not just half-full) as a result of increased use by choice riders. These would be serious effects on overall ridership figures and on transit mode share.

Full buses are a better problem to have than empty buses, and it is probably appropriate to consider it not just as a problem but as an opportunity to increase the number of people using transit. We should think of every full bus as having missed out on a certain number of would-be riders, which riders will materialize if offered less crowded service.

Missing sidewalks in Kitchener-Waterloo

Missing sidewalk on Esson

For a city to be open to pedestrians, there need to be paths between useful destinations, the paths need to be maintained, and pedestrians need to feel safe. Before you can run, you have to walk, and before you can walk, you need a place to do it. In Kitchener-Waterloo there are numerous roads that are missing sidewalks, often on both sides of the street. Sometimes the sidewalks are sporadic: they appear and disappear on a stretch of road. Occasionally one-sided sidewalks even switch sides at intersections. Suburban subdivisions are haphazard, sometimes having full sidewalk coverage, but just as often leaving them out. And sidewalks in industrial areas are simple: there just aren’t any.

I set out to document the state of missing sidewalks in Kitchener and Waterloo. Using Google Maps, I drew red lines for roads missing sidewalks on both sides and blue lines for those missing a sidewalk on just one. I tried to cover everything that is not a suburban subdivision, and I did Eastbridge as an example of a suburban area. There are undoubtedly missing sidewalks that I did not document, and probably some tiny sidewalks that I mistook for curbs. Click on the below map image to see it on Google Maps in more detail. [Update: This is based on 2006 satellite imagery, and a few sidewalks have been put in since then.] Read More…

A walk from Waterloo to the University of Waterloo

Waterloo is a small city that has owed much to the rise of the University of Waterloo over the last half century. Uptown Waterloo is the thriving, if small, downtown area. Waterloo has 100,000 residents and the University of Waterloo has 30,000 people. It’s less than 2 km between Uptown and the main UW campus. Let’s take a walk from one to the other.

Read More…

Green power is cheap

Electricity in Ontario comes predominantly from nuclear, coal, and hydro (in that order). For historical reasons people refer to it as “hydro”. Well, I just recently got my bill, which is actually for wind and low-impact hydro – via Bullfrog Power. The bill is for $102, which is for a two-person household for two months (with little A/C use and no lights left on all day). Sounds like a lot? Well, how much more do you think I’m paying to get certified low-impact hydro and wind versus nuclear and coal?

The answer might surprise you: all of $18 extra, out of the total bill of $102. Less than $5 per person per month.

Fully half of the bill is for delivery, regulatory charges, and a debt retirement charge. The regular Ontario hydro rate is currently 5.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while getting electricity through Bullfrog Power costs 8.7 cents per kWh. Which makes a 34% premium for the power itself, or 17% of the total.

The way this “offsetting” works is that you still pay your local utility, which provides power from the general grid, checks your meter, and bills you accordingly, including the 3 cent per kWh premium. (Or in some cases you pay the premium directly.) On the other end, electricity generating sources sell their power at the fixed Ontario price (5.7 cents) to the grid, getting their additional compensation from Bullfrog. There can be issues with such schemes in general, but Bullfrog looks to be running a professional and well-audited operation.

Unlike generic carbon offsetting, however, this is very concrete: you pay for the certified low-impact generation of just the electricity you use, with little or no hand-waving. In Ontario demand for Bullfrog Power is being met with the creation of new wind farms.

What about businesses that use electricity? In my case above, a 34% premium on one level became a 17% premium on the next level. But in the context of products or services, you have to add in the cost of materials and the cost of labor. Considering that electricity is a relatively small proportion of the cost of most products and services, that 17% premium would be a vanishingly small portion of the end result. I think plenty of people would be happy to pay an extra 1% to ensure that a business was powered by clean electricity. Plus, if that percentage is perceived to be large, there are likely energy savings that can be made to mitigate or eliminate the hit.